Saturday, June 30, 2018

This week’s flurry of Dodge announcements points to FCA aligning to fill voids Ford, GM are leaving in the market.

Selected submodels from the 2019 Dodge Challenger & Charger lineup.
Photo: FCA Media website.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) issued a flurry of Dodge-division announcements late this week that, although they tell us little that we didn’t know already, further clarify their strategic direction for Dodge going into the 2019 model year.

The Dodge announcements give us a snapshot of an automaker that is continuing to stay the course with two of their current strong suits: fleet sales and performance-focused passenger cars.

In the currently lean Dodge lineup, that means variants of three models: the Dodge Durango full-size SUV, the Dodge Challenger two-door muscle car, and the Charger, billed by FCA as “America’s only four-door muscle car.”

Highlights of the announcements included:
  • Fact sheets touting performance and safety enhancements to Dodge’s current cop-car offerings—the Dodge Charger Pursuit and the Dodge Durango Pursuit. The Charger cop car is getting enhancements to the camera and sensors in the rear, meant to increase officer awareness of potential threats from behind when working in a stopped or parked cruiser. The Durango Pursuit’s upgrades focus on what Fiat Chrysler touts as “the most advanced all-wheel drive system in the segment” to improve stability, tactical performance, all-weather traction, and fuel efficiency.
  • 2019 Pricing for the Dodge Challenger lineup, which starts with a base model at $27,295 and tops out at $69,650 for the Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye.
  • A “revamped Dodge Charger performance lineup,” with new submodels including the all-wheel-drive Charger SXT and the rear-wheel-drive Charger GT, both powered by the 300-horsepower Pentastar 3.6-liter V6.
  • Enhancements to the Charger SXT and GT, including “race-bred chassis updates” and “performance looks” including a hood with air induction, styled fascia, sculpted side sills, and a decklid spoiler.
  • New goodies for the Charger SRT Hellcat and R/T Scat Pack, including Launch Assist, which adjusts torque when wheel-hop situations are detected, and Line Lock, which is essentially a feature that makes it easier to do burnouts.

Taken together, these announcements give us a big picture of an automaker with a strategy to boost their market share and presence in specific niche segments of the industry.

With Chevrolet and Ford exiting the large-sedan space, there is at least theoretically an expansion opportunity for Dodge. They can fill some of the resulting void by spotlighting Charger as a four-door sedan that delivers impressive performance with either the V6 or V8 powertrain, while also offering the versatility to meet needs and desires of motorists ranging from enthusiast consumers who want a car that mixes muscle with viable grocery-getting and family-duty capabilities. And for fleet sales, they can appeal to institutional customers like police departments that still want traditional rear-drive sedan-based cruisers instead of SUVs.

Challenger, moreover, is in a strong position to compete with Mustang and Camaro as a vehicle that arguably has more raw cred with muscle purists and less of a “pretty sporty car” stigma. Don’t get me wrong. I love Mustangs and Camaros—especially the first and second generation of each—just as much as the next guy does. And no offense intended to Ford and Chevy pony car enthusiasts, or to the many horsepower-digging women who can hold their own behind the wheel of a muscle car just as much as the boys, on the street or on the track.

But, if we’re honest, it should be admitted that Mopar muscle has always tipped the scale toward pure, badass power, while Mustang and Camaro, even in their strongest-performing variants, can never quite escape the reality that a “chicks dig ʼem” element is always part of the mix. Mopar muscle cars at their best have been raw, streamlined, no-nonsense, intimidating street machines. That’s what Mopar muscle cars have always been about. They are meant to be misfit toys, not pretty cars.

And finally, with the cop-car offerings, Chrysler, even in a context of continuing to trail competitors GM and Ford in overall unit sales and market share, and in the face of questionable criticism that their lineup is getting “tired” (some might counter that what they are actually doing is defiantly bucking trends and staying close to their pure, classic roots), can continue to capitalize on a segment that remains one of their bright spots.

In April, for example, as reported by Bloomberg last month, fleet sales for Chrysler surged by a whopping 31 percent, compared to a 12 percent gain in fleet sales for GM and an 8.6 percent drop for  Ford.

Since passenger-car segments that GM and Ford are beginning to delete from their lineups have traditionally been an important component of fleet sales, these numbers are not surprising. And while a focus for Dodge on muscle, strong-performing sedans, and fleet vehicles might not be enough to propel Chrysler out of their third-place slot among the Big 3, the stars do seem to be aligned in a way that supports their ability to strengthen their position as a strong niche player.

At a minimum, given this week’s announcements, that certainly seems—for now, at least—to be a direction in which Fiat Chrysler is quite intentionally heading.

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